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Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900 Hardcover – Sep 19 2009

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre; First Edition edition (Sept. 19 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1553653424
  • ISBN-13: 978-1553653424
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.7 x 23.8 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 590 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #49,204 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


"Stephen R. Bown has crafted a masterful read in his study of the six major companies...Despite the manifold evils he documents, Mr. Bown manages to put the companies into historic perspective...[A] book that is at once intriguing and disturbing." (Washington Post 2011-03-18)

"In Merchant Kings...Bown chronicles the lives of six men who governed and shaped the world as we know it. He deftly interweaves detailed story and back-story, military battles and backroom deals, with global forces and each man's idiosyncrasies. In a highly accessibly style, he recounts the achievements -- and the shame -- of these mercantile actors." (Vancouver Sun 2009-08-18)

"Calgary historian Stephen Bown...has ingeniously whittled this multinational history down to vignettes of six of its more notorious figures: Jan Coen operating in what is now Indonesia; Pieter Stuyvesant in New York; Robert Clive in India; Aleksandr Baranov in Alaska; George Simpson in Canada, and Cecil Rhodes in Africa. Excellent biographies exist for them all, and Bown does not repeat that work. Rather, he uses (and fully acknowledges) these biographies to distill their complex life stories into six sharply etched portraits." (Globe & Mail 2009-10-02)

"[Bown] deftly interweaves detailed story and back story, military battles and backroom deals, with global forces and each man's idiosyncrasies. In a highly accessible style, he recounts the achievement -- and the same -- of those mercantile actors who 'changes history as significantly as the moist celebrated military generals, political leaders, and technological innovators did'." (Calgary Herald 2009-10-03)

"Bown has shown once again that he has a keen eye for details and narrative that bring history to life, even for the impatient modern reader. In this tale, he profiles six men who were crucial to the establishment of international commerce in the 17th to 19th centuries." (FastForward Weekly 2009-11-04)

"Stephen Bown tells a fascinating story, one that provides a very different perspective on the colonial period than that which is to be gleaned from the usual grocery list of significant events. I started Merchant Kings on the plane one evening and didn't put it down until the Sun rose the next morning. I lost a night's sleep -- but it was worth it." (Paul Martin, former Prime Minister of Canada 2009-12-10)

"Stephen R. Bown introduces a cast of colourful and often unscrupulous characters. In the Age of Heroic Commerce, these merchant-explorers and the companies they ran, such as the Dutch East India Company, the Russian-American Company, and the British South African Company, ruled vast tracts of the globe, raking in unimaginable wealth. With the backing of their home nations, the companies deposed rulers, raised private armies, waged war and collected taxes." (History Magazine 2010-02-01)

"The 'broaden' Canadian history and consider it in the context of world events is evidenced in works such as Stephen R. Bown's Merchant Kings, which provides a very readable comparative look at six of the most prominent characters in trading companies that dominated world trade, commerce and colonial expansion...Whether they were truly Merchant Kings, or merely renegades in the wilderness, this book provides a very accessible glimpse into a fascinating era when companies more than countries ran the world and actions of individual men really did change it profoundly." (Canada's History 2010-08-11)

"In the present age of wealth and excess, corporate greed and scandal, an ingrained culture of entitlement shared by senior executives and senior bureaucrats, and inexcusable poverty, inequity, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation, Bown's stories resonate with us today on a much more immediate level." (Northern Mariner 2010-09-01)

"Bown has produced a magnificent description of the six great companies, and their leaders, that dominated the 'Heroic Age of Commerce'...[He] presents a fascinating look at the men who exploited resources and native peoples while laying the foundations of empires." (Publishers Weekly 2010-11-01)

"Bown has fashioned a chronicle perfectly relevant to our own timeóand ultimately shows us that a market is free only when those who live and consume within it are protected from the powerful." (New York Journal of Books 2010-12-07)

"Engagingly written and refreshingly conversational, Merchant Kings brings a cohesion to such a large and unwieldy historical period, a period that both led directly to, and remains an integral part of, so many contemporary economic and political struggles. And he does so commendably." (Post & Courier 2011-03-08)

"Bown's work laudably contributes to the aim of sustaining public interest in history." (Ted Binnema Canadian Literature 2011-08-01)

About the Author

Stephen Bown is the award-winning author of several books that tell history’s untold stories, including 1494: How a Family Feud in Medieval Spain Divided the World in Half; Madness, Betrayal and the Lash and Merchant Kings. He lives in Canmore, Alberta, with his wife and two children.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on Jan. 17 2010
Format: Hardcover
As a teacher of history, I would definitely use Stephen Bown's tales about the 'movers and shakers' of the company era as a tool to get my students interested in modern history. This book covers all the bases as to what motivates people to put their lives on the line in the pursuit of wealth. In the space of three centuries, 'men' went out into the wilderness with a mercantilistic drive and mandate to live out their dreams of conquest and personal derring-do. It would seem that the cast of characters like Stuyvesant, Simpson, Clive, Rhodes, and Baranov had one thing in common: build an economic colossus based on the cunning and unscrupulous use of monopoly trading rights for any number of products. It was on their efforts that companies like the Hudson's Bay and Dutch - and English-East India companies grew to encompass the globe. For them their success was bound up in the company and its operating charter. Bown retells the stories of each of these 'merchants' of plunder in such a way as to allow his readers to see what truly motivated them to do the incredible feats they did in the interest of preserving the bottom-line. An urge to compete and become wealthy, a sense of childhood inadequacy, a desire for freedom, and a pathological need to dominate and control all factor into the personalities of these company men who, to paraphrase the words of Peter Newman, fancied ruling the world like modern-day Caesars. While most of these entrepreneurs may have had a compassionate side to them, most chose not to show it because it might compromise the mission they were called to complete.Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 16 reviews
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Visit an age of real corporation raiders May 21 2011
By Phil Mackey - Published on
Format: Hardcover
It may surprise a number of people that there was once a time where large powerful companies ruled a considerable portion of the globe and were often a law onto themselves, maintained their own militaries, employed many thousands, dominated millions, all for the enrichment of a few company officers and stockholders. It might be more surprising that all this began not during the industrial revolution of the 19th or 20th centuries but at the beginning of the 17th century when modern capitalism was just beginning to develop.

"Merchant Kings" by Stephen R. Bown takes the reader back to those days beginning in the 17th Century when a number of European countries including England, Holland, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Russia granted joint-stock companies trading monopolies in Asia, Africa, and the New World. Although they were many such companies operating between the 17th and 19th centuries, Bown chooses to highlight six of them, the Dutch East Indies Company, the Dutch West Indies Company, the English East Indies Company, the Russian-American Company, the Hudson's Bay Company, and the British South African Company. Each of these companies had larger than life figures leading them and each of them greatly influenced and affected the areas of the globe where they operated, some to the present-day. Bown describes why these and other companies were created, why they were able to operate as they did and describes the problems of running these global companies without the benefit of modern transportation and communications. Bown also describes why nearly all these trading companies eventually declined and faded into history.

If one is looking a great in-depth history of any of these six companies, this book is probably not the best source available. The English East Indies Company alone is the subject of many books, "The Honourable Company" by John Keay and "the Business of Empire" by H.V. Bowen are but two examples. However, if you are a casual reader of history and are curious about this phenomena in world history, "Merchant Kings" is an easy-to-read and entertaining introduction to the subject.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Well done parallel history of six companies that acted like empires Feb. 24 2012
By Jeff - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Stephen Bown's Merchant Kings has a clever idea for a book and several ripping good yarns to tell. Like many books these days with subtitles, this one's "When Companies Ruled the World 1600-1900" is an overreach, but it still has quite the tale to tell.

In a nutshell, several European countries during this time frame established companies to be put together which effectively had governmental power over the territories they managed. This book covers six: the Dutch East India Company; the English East India Company; the Dutch West India Company; the Russian American Company; the Hudson Bay Company, and the British South African Company. Each story is quite interesting, although I found the first, third, fifth, and sixth companies to be considerably more interesting than the Russian or British East India company.

There are some pretty amazing and dictatorial characters in this book, and Bown is very good about sketching them with enough detail for them to be really interesting, but not so much they get bogged down. As one example, it took 9 months for the governor of the Dutch East indies to ask for instructions from home, and another 9 months for him to receive a reply. Not surprisingly, this leads to extremely autonomous governing, done by virtual tyrants. There are some amazingly cruel acts committed here against natives, and this is part of Bown's point. I'm not sure it was his intention, but whenever you hear about sweatshops in far off lands, pick this book up and you'll quickly remember what real exploitation is like.

This is a fine book for anyone interested in history in general, and the history of the corporation in general.
31 of 41 people found the following review helpful
Globalization/Exploitation (101) Dec 31 2010
By R. A. Barricklow - Published on
Format: Hardcover
So we cannot carry on trade without war, nor war without trade.

Sound familiar?
These are words expressed in a letter by Jan Pieterszzon Coen, who had assumed command of the Dutch East India Company(VOC), the first great global corporation, in 1622, to the company's governing "Council of Seventeen". This, his long-held conviction: violent force was necessary for profitability, would soon be put into action, sheding any pretence, that the corporation's true business practices would be peaceful. When these violent actions were called into question he fired back to the Council/...I swear that no enemies do our cause more harm than ignorance and stupidity existing among you, gentlemen! This he wrote to his superiors!
Needless to say Stephen R. Bown has found, not only a rousing tale to tell, but one that runs parallel today's ongoing wave of globalization. Indeed, Mark Twian's/History may not repeat itself, but it damn sure rhymes - was a continuing backdrop theme for me as the author's pages seamlessly turned. The simularities are striking, and quite frankly, frightening.
He tells the story of six Merchat Kings and the companies they commanded: Dutch East India Copany, Dutch West India Company, English East India Company, Russian American Company, Hudson Bay Company and the British South Africa Company. A story of how these companies ruled the world, that foreshadow today's transnational corporations.
I envy the reader, as he or she travels back with the Merchant Kings for the first time, even as stark backdrop echoes of an ever reverberabing present/future tense, put one on edge.
An extremely entertaining read and as important.


P.S. For those wanting to continue with a Globalization/Exploitation (201) please read: Gods of Money/Wall Street and the Death of the American Century by F. William Engdahl.
Unlike the British Empire, which was based on military conquest and direct possesion of colonies, the American version of global domination was based on financial conquest and economic possession. It was complexly layered by refinement, one which allowed US corporate giants to veil their interests behind the flag of 'democracy and political rights' for 'oppressed colonial peoples,' support of 'free enterprise' and 'open markets'. These were the policies reflected by the Council on Foreign Relations task force, and they were antything but democratic. It represented the interests of an elite handful of American banks and industrial corporations that had developed global interests. The businessmen and their law firms were a breed apart from the rest of Americans, an oligarchy to themselves, an aristrocracy of power and money.
Not recommended for the feint of heart, or the dolled-up in red, white, & blue.
P.P.S. Exploitation 301 google: jim fetzer podcast. go to Friday, August 19 2011 Leuren Moret 1:36:28 clicks in, to 1:41:28 clicks in.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Fascinating Easy Read Dec 28 2012
By Ohio Girl - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This book expanded my worldview and historical knowledge in a very readable way as the stories of each merchant king are broken down into relatively short chapters/vignettes that discuss their often-blood thirsty (or sometimes not so) exploits. After reading this less than 300 page book, I now possess a better comprehension of world history that was at times gruesome yet fascinating, as it outlines the how countries motivated by greed and power manipulated weaker or less sophisticated cultures in order to control natural resources. On a side note - some of the accounts are a little graphic, revealing the near-psychopathic undertones of a few of the company leaders.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
six men who controlled large parts of the world Oct. 22 2013
By K. Kennedy - Published on
Format: Hardcover
"Merchant Kings" by Stephen Bown is the story of six very powerful men who built their own empires within the construct of colonialism and the rise of capitalism. Mr. Bown's writing is easy to follow, and he is able to describe the situations, difficulties, and temptations that each of these men faced, as well as how they fared during their lives. He also includes an honest assessment of the brutal conditions each man created for the majority of the people, so that others (i.e., shareholders, nobility, etc.) could profit. This is a very interesting book and it provides a good understanding of these men and their times.

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